The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Trim the plants around the cameras

Well I guess you scared me too
--Concrete Blonde

First, let me shout in jubilation that the West Memphis Three were freed today, 18 years after a huge, terrible, awful miscarriage of justice.

Sadly, instead of walking out of prison as clearly free men, they are walking out of prison under a most bizarre legal arrangement that has them proclaiming their innocence, while the criminal justice sees them as guilty. Kind of.

But, at least they are out of jail.

I wonder what each one thought as they felt the Arkansas sun on their face, smelled the late summer honeysuckle, heard cars go by. All the same as when they were in prison, but, this time, wearing street clothes, with nobody to stop them walking across the street, no guns, no guards.

Do you think they are slightly scared? The world of the last two decades was awful and unfair… but they were used to it.

I wonder. Is the joy balanced with terror?

I started looking for a warning sign

I'm sitting at my desk in the corner of the main room of my company, listening to music. Pretty normal day… well, except that most days I don't get to spend much time at my desk, but let's ignore that for now, ok? You'd normally find me drinking coffee, or water from my water bottle.

// Side note: really, don't use the plastic water bottles, think of the landfill waste!! //

However, at the moment, I'm drinking neither water nor coffee. I'm drinking a Canada Dry ginger ale from a can.

The can is showing ads for characters in the upcoming movie "Captain America".

Am I the only one that perceives a bit of irony in a drink called **Canada** Dry showing ads for Captain **America**? An unusual marketing arrangement.

I'm quiet you know.
You make a first impression
--Howie Day

We are hiring like mad at my startup company, ZestCash. (Yes, if you're interested, we are hiring software engineers, machine learning experts, product managers, and relationship managers.)

This week we interviewed 4 software engineers, two product managers, and two senior non-engineering related people.

Wow. My calendar looks worse even than it did at the end of my days at the Big G in the sky.

But it is a really good use of time. Perhaps the single most important thing a startup CEO can do.

It's super important to hire well at small companies. Hiring matters everywhere, I think, but mediocre employees can bounce along at large companies. Weak hires don't add much, other than cost, but they also don't risk the company's existence.

At a startup, bad hires can sink the ship. A single bad hire sets a cultural tone that excellence doesn't matter. One bad worker makes everyone else work less.

And, at least at my startup, there is always a lot of work to do. If everyone works a little less, we are less likely to hit our targets. Thus, bad hires make it less likely that the company will thrive (or, I guess, even survive).

If you'll let me use a bit of "HR speak", talent is the whole game. I'm obviously not the only person who thinks this. Mark Suster agrees. Dave McClure does as well. Marc Andreessen has a slightly more nuanced view, but doesn't contradict the point.

If your product space is dumb, or is too small make a viable company, then perhaps talent won't be enough. But, otherwise it's all about great employees.

I believe that, given the right talent, you can find a good product-market fit. Thus, I spend a lot of time on hiring. We had the same general view at Google, where I spent at least 25% of my time dealing with hiring in some form or another.

// Side note: It's pretty cool to be able to compare my little startup to Google! //

Over my career, I've hired literally thousands of people. I've fired a few. I've laid off many… thanks to Schwab, mostly. I have a group of folks that tend to move from company to company with me.

I get asked a lot how I think about hiring, what should candidates say to get my attention, or how resumes matter, etc.

Thus, this blog post: How does Douglas think about hiring.

First, a few words from our sponsor. I don't read cover letters. I don't care what they say. Maybe professional recruiters do, but I don't. Don't waste time writing one. Also, I don't care if your resume is really pretty. Fonts, etc., don't impress me. It's amazing what Microsoft Word can do for you. Keep it simple.

// Side note: If you write your resume in LaTeX, I will be impressed. If you don't know what LaTeX is, don't worry about it. //

OK, so what do I care about?

On a trivial note, I care about spelling. "Principal" is not the same as "principle". Make sure you know which is which. I recently saw an applicant who had experience in "discreet math". I don't think I care that you do your computation behind closed doors.

And, by all the saints, spell check the stupid document. Really, Word will put a squiggly red line under a word it doesn't recognize. Look for the squiggle. If Word doesn't recognize the word, you're probably spelling it wrong.

// Side note: The squiggly also might be under some Google-related term. Not sure why that would be… //

For alternative spelling advice, do a Google search for the word, and pay attention to the spelling correction suggested.

Lest there be any confusion, let me be clear: If you can't even QA your own resume, you almost certainly won't be working in my code base.

My company writes virtually all of its code in Ruby. You'd think, therefore, that you need to know Ruby to get hired. Not true. We will let you interview in whatever language you like (as long as one of us speaks that language!).

But you really don't want to put down that you know Ruby if you don't. We are going to ask you to write code on the board. If you say you know Ruby, we are going to ask you to write in it. And if your code stinks, it will reflect badly on you. Stick to a language you know. I have nothing intrinsically against Java, C, C++, or even (horror) C#. You get my point.

If you come interview at ZestCash (and did I mention we are hiring?), here's what will happen. We will read your resume (that you submit via our jobs page).

First, I'm going to look at your education. It's not a determining factor, but it does have signaling value. Did you go to some super snooty school and manage a C average? I'll be interested in what you did instead of studying. Did you go to a really not-great school, but come out with a 4.0? I'm going to be excited to talk to you.

// Side note: By the way, I went to a second-tier undergraduate school. My overall GPA was pretty good, but nothing to write home about. //

Some of you
might still be in that place

I'm going to look at your job history next. Have you jumped from job to job, staying a year at each place? I'm going to wonder what was firing your jets to leave so quickly. The lifespan of a job seems to vary by industry. I once interviewed for a job at a hedge fund (no, don't ask, it was a bad idea from start to finish, but that's another story). The head of the hedge fund asked why I had so many jobs, for such short periods. I have a series of 4 - 5 year stints. Although pretty normal for tech companies, apparently it's abnormal for financial services?

I'm particularly looking for 12 month jobs. I've got one on my resume. Feel free to ask me about it. I'd ask you.

And when you answer, I'd suggest that you not spend a lot of time throwing your old boss under the bus. Every success has a lot of factors… and failures do as well. I'm going to respect you more if you talk about what went wrong including what you didn't do well.

And I'm not going to be blown away if your answer is "well, job #2 gave me a 20% raise." I am not going to get into a bidding war with your next employer -- that's not how we work -- so I'm now wondering if I'm going to be able to keep you more than a year.

Then, I'm going to look at the path of your jobs. I want to know you did interesting things at each job. I don't care if you decided to go into management -- not everyone does. I don't even care, much, about getting progressively bigger titles. I care that you are trying different things, learning at each level, teaching at each level.

Sadly, I may also have to look at your visa status. Startup Visa program anyone?

OK, enough paper stuff. Time to do some work.

One of my engineers (or product managers) is going to call you. This "phone screen" will be about 45 minutes long.

// Side note: If I call you, the call will probably be a bit shorter, since I talk really (really) fast. Don't take it personally. //

The phone screen will cover your experience -- so be prepared to walk through your resume. This is probably the only time you'll have to do so! Prepare!

Then, you'll be asked a technology architecture question, to see if you can think through some tech gunk. We probably won't ask you to write code, since that doesn't work over the phone, but we might ask you to, for example, walk through the architecture for building a crawler.

After that screen, the interviewer will put a score (we currently use 1 - 4 scores, with "1" meaning "no way" and "4" meaning "can the interviewee start tomorrow?"), and a few sentences of feedback into our tracking system.

If the scores are south of 2, we'll probably end the process here.

If the scores are around 3 -- as most are -- we will have a second phone screen with you, with a different person asking similar questions. At this point, we will either invite you to come in for onsite interviews, or we will end the process. There's no option for additional phone screens.

Our onsite process involves interviews and homework. If we are going to bring you in to talk to us, we are going to give you a piece of homework to do in advance. The goal is for you to spend a few hours attacking some problem, usually a mix of architecture and a bit of code.

The first 30 minutes of your onsite visit will be presenting this homework to a group of us. We'll ask some questions, but we don't expect (or want) polished presentations. We want to see some code (that runs, by the way!) and a reasonable architectural diagram. The 30 minutes lets more of us see you think and talk, and gives you the chance to see several of us. We want you to want us, too!

After that, you will have a series of interviews. You will have at least two engineering interviews. Each will be 45 minutes long. At least one will require you to write code on the board, and the other will ask you to solve some architectural tasks. These interviews will be hard. If you aren't sweating a bit at the end… something went wrong.

At some point during the day, you will be interviewed by a non-tech person. That interviewer will be testing for cultural fit. Even if you're brilliant, you may not be the best fit for our culture. And, to be fair, we may not be the best fit for you! To be a Zestian, you have to be comfortable with our culture. We eat lunch together every day -- and nobody wants to sit next to someone boring, right? Everyone talks about everything. Although people have focus areas, they aren't wearing blinders. You might be asked a technical question by a finance person, or be asked to do some (seemingly) random analysis for me. It happens. We aren't a great place to work for people who struggle to get things done when distracted.

At the end of the day, normally, you'll see me. If my calendar doesn't allow it, let me apologize in advance. I'm going to ask a few questions, and give you a chance to ask about the business. You should have some questions. It looks bad if you don't.

Then, you'll be done! W00t! You can head off to the bar!

But we can't.

Right after you leave, we will all gather in a conference room. Each of us will give our feedback -- including that 1 - 4 score. Our goal is to reach consensus on whether you are smart or not. You could have tanked on the algorithms question, but done a good job trying to figure it out. You could have completely whiffed on my thinking question, but been interesting in how you tried. You get the picture -- we cared less about the answers than the ways you tried to answer.

Truly, the journey is the destination.

We will get back to you within 24 hours, in almost all circumstances. We appreciate your time, and want to be respectful. And, if we like you, we want you to like us!

Hopefully, you'll love the offer, say yes, and we will have a great time together solving really hard problems.

(Did I mention we are hiring?)

So, if you've read this far, you have a pretty clear picture of how we hire. But is it clear why we hire that way?

1) We hire for horsepower. I can teach you skills. I can't teach you to be smarter.
2) We want you to be a well-rounded person.
3) I want you to believe in what we do -- we are not just a company, we are a mission.

That's right. Not just another company, a mission. Pay attention now, let's talk about the mission…

Our product? A short-term loan that is about 50% the cost of the alternative.
Our mission? To save the underbanked billions of dollars.
The best part of every day? Talking to a customer who, because of our loan, can pay their rent, fix their car, pay a health care bill, buy school supplies for a child. You get it. We care about our customers.

Do you want to join us?

Rise above
we're gonna
rise above
--Black Flag